Suffragette citing

June 14, 1996

Brian Harrison (THES, June 7) and I have genuine differences of view about the interpretation of sources relating to the prison experiences of the suffragettes in Edwardian Britain. I am glad that he took my advice and, rather than continue to write letters to me, wrote a piece for the THES. Our views are thus in the public domain and subject to scholarly scrutiny. But, there are a few points I would like to make.

1. Harrison has particularly taken issue with the statement in my article (THES, April 26) that he "facetiously pointed out in 1982 that 'clumsiness' in the prison doctor during forcible feeding could destroy a woman's greatest asset, 'her looks'". Yet nowhere in his THES essay does he raise this point. I suspect that my statement is the basis for the sniping comments he makes, an activity that he has engaged in on previous occasions when feminist historians diverge from his views. Instead of directly confronting the statement I made, Harrison attempts to deflect criticism of himself by stressing that I "correctly" draw upon the analogy of rape when discussing forcible feeding: by attacking my level of scholarship, and by defending the views of Roger Fulford and George Dangerfield.

2. Harrison's claim, for example, that Dangerfield's 1935 text The Strange Death of Liberal England was "remarkably sympathetic to the suffragettes" requires close examination. In this influential book, the suffragette movement is presented as a comedy and described from 1912 as being "melodramatic" and "hysterical", a form of "prewar lesbianism"!

3. Further examples could be cited, revealing among other things, the differing interpretative frameworks within which Harrison and myself may be located. However, unlike some male historians I do not hide behind a cloak of supposed "objectivity" but make quite clear that I am a feminist writer researching first wave feminism. Indeed, the varying "stories" that we have to tell point to the important fact that there is not one "correct" view of the past. As Adrienne Rich has warned us, claims to "objectivity" can all too often mean male subjectivity.

4. The full text of my essay, complete with detailed footnotes is to be found in Women's History Review Vol.4 No.1, 1995.

June Purvis

University of Portsmouth

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